Whether you’re growing your own “nano-prairie” or just enjoy the soft texture and flowing stems of ornamental grasses, little bluestem (Schizachyrium scoparium) deserves a place somewhere in your garden for its fall color, winter interest, and wildlife value. The narrow blades of this native American native grass are an important food plant for tiny butterflies such as grass skippers and wood nymphs, and their abundant seed stems along road sides and in wild areas provide forage for many songbirds through winter.
Although little bluestem is what’s called a “warm season grass”, meaning it’s slow to wake up in spring and begin greening up, this short (1-3′) native grass has impact throughout most the year. As warm temperatures of summer arrive, stiff green blades shoot up into a mass of gently-waving stems which take on increasingly fiery hues as fall approaches….
The fluffy stems and dried mass of winter foliage stay fairly intact right into the following spring, when you can shear the stems to about 3″ to allow sunlight to warm the soil and encourage new growth. Or not! (If you’re a passive-style wildlife gardener who leaves old stems in place to self-mulch plants, that’s fine too…plants always appreciate a mulch of their foliage!)
Little bluestem’s clumping habitat (as opposed to spreading by roots) makes it suitable for any meadow garden planting with fairly well drained soil and full sun. It’s short stature (less than 3′) and unfussy nature makes it the perfect plant for a habitat container. During last summer’s eastern US drought, we only watered the container below once or twice, and it never missed a beat. Probably it would have been fine if I hadn’t watered it at all… (shown here in April before new growth begins)
A large prairie-type bluestem planting is breathtaking. This carefully maintained meadow at Norcross Wildlife Sanctuary, Monson, Mass is mowed every few years to keep shrubs and tree seedlings from turning it back into a forest:
Little bluestem is easy to grow from seed, and chances are it’s growing on a roadside near you – if you see it, collect a few seeds in the fall and scatter them in your wildlife garden beds, your seedlings will be a locally-adapted “selection” of little bluestem, and should grow well without fertilizers or irrigation.
By the way, for readers in or planning to visit New England – Norcross is a wonderful central MA resource for nature lovers and habitat gardeners – their large wildlife sanctuary is FREE and open to the public all year round, and their many areas of woods, ponds, fields and other managed habitats showcase a variety of southern New England ecosystems and the native plants that will grow there.
Ellen Sousa gardens, farms, writes and teaches from Turkey Hill Brook Farm, a small horse farm in the Worcester Hills of central Massachusetts.
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